Top Chef Kentucky
By Jason Lee
February 18, 2019
You didn’t think we’d finish up this season of Top Chef: Kentucky without doing a KFC-themed challenge, now did you? With six chefs left, and joined by Art Smith (cookbook author, former chef for Oprah, Top Chef: Masters alum, and fried chicken expert), we’re doing Fried Chicken vs. Fried Chicken Part III—this time, without the waffles.
Padma gives us a little background on Kentucky Fried Chicken and the iconic Colonel, making the establishment seem much more legitimate and historic than it’s maybe perceived . . . but when you hire Reba McEntire for a Quick Service Restaurant-drag race commercial, that’s what’s gonna happen. The chefs will have to create their own blend of herbs and spices for their fried chicken, but to do so, they’ll have to earn it. Bringing back one of the best Quickfire challenges from past seasons, the chefs first have to identify a variety of spices blindfolded, with only smell and taste to guide them.
Fans will recall how well Top Chef winner Brooke Williamson did on this challenge, and the ladies of Top Chef: Kentucky don’t disappointment. Sara ends up as top dog with twelve herbs and spices identified, with Kelsey not far behind with eleven. Eric takes third with seven, while Justin, Eddie, and Adrienne tie for last with six.
With only the correctly identified spices in their arsenal, the chefs get to work on their fried chicken. While most chefs opt for the fryer, Eddie seemingly makes a smart decision in deciding to shallow fry his chicken in a cast iron pan. Almost all the other chefs immediately find problems with their chicken, as the oil temperature is much too high, leading to quick browning of the breading while leaving the chicken raw inside. Adrienne throws her chicken in again, Justin throws his into the oven, and Kelsey is almost surgical in finding pieces of chicken that are properly cooked through.
Eric goes first with a fried chicken sandwich with a gochujang mayonnaise and slaw cabbage. It has nice crunch. Justin went Asian in doing Japanese fried chicken (I assume he was trying to do karaage?) with tempura-fried cabbage, shoyu, and tamari . . . though it looks like a soggy mess on the plate.
Eddie proudly presents his double breaded chicken thigh, cooked in a cast iron pan, with his own homemade hot sauce. It’s moist and flavorful. Sara is next with fried chicken with corn and blackberry salad, which has wonderful acidity balanced with sweetness. Adrienne did well to fully cook her fried chicken with tumeric sage with Moroccan orange salad, which is super crispy. Finally, Kelsey has a teeny tiny piece of fried chicken thigh with pickled fennel, peach slaw, and a remoulade sauce—honestly, it looks like an amuse bouche.
Justin’s overdone chicken, Kelsey’s “whisper” of chicken on a plate, and Eric’s over-fried chicken land them on the bottom. Meanwhile, Sara’s tangy/sweet chicken dish, Eddie’s flavorful chicken and great sauce, and Adrienne’s crispy chicken take them to the top. Ultimately, Sara finds redemption from last week’s chicken-and-(box) waffles dish by winning the Quickfire and the accompanying $5,000. There’s no immunity to go along, but it gives her some much needed momentum.
From KFC to Muhammad Ali, the chefs are next going to honor one of Louisville’s legends through a progressive menu held in the Muhammad Ali museum. Each chef is tasked with making one dish inspired by a particular iconic bout, to be served to 100 at a charity gala. The guest judge, appropriately enough, is Laila Ali, Muhammad Ali’s daughter, a cookbook author, and former boxer.
The challenge, thankfully, invites use of a wide range of different flavors and culinary traditions—with fights taking place in Maine, New Orleans, Manila, and Zaire, now known as Democratic Republic of Congo. As the chefs menu plan, there’s immediately a dispute over who will make the dish inspired by the Fight in Freedom Hall, which was Ali’s first professional fight and took place in Kentucky. Sara is adamant that she does not want to take that one, as she’s done enough Kentucky-themed challenges and would like to showcase her skill. In the end, Sara, Justin, and Eric draw straws to figure out which chefs will take dishes one through three . . . and though random, Justin gets Liston II (which took place in Maine) as he wanted, and Eric gets Rumble in the Jungle (which took place in Zaire), and Sara ends up stuck with Fight in Freedom Hall.
She just can’t seem to catch a break.
Thankfully, she figures out a way “into” the dish for her, doing a take on Thunder and Lightning because Ali developed a reputation after the fight for being as “fast as lightning.” Things are rougher for Eddie and Adrienne. Eddie wanted to incorporate duck for his Fight of the Century dish, which took place in the Hudson Valley. Whole Foods only has frozen duck, though, so he has to rework his dish to feature chicken. As for Adrienne, she happily chats about her dish inspired by the Thrilla in Manila with Tom and guest judge Nilou from Food & Wine Magazine, but they correctly point out that her flavors are far more similar to that of Vietnam or Thailand, as opposed to the Philippines. They encourage her to integrate more Spanish and Portuguese flavors instead, and Adrienne all but throws up her hands in frustration, as she already has all her ingredients purchased and a good amount of prep work already done.
The next day, Adrienne smartly decides to make minor changes to the flavor and marketing of her dish. She knows that the Thrilla in Manila was famous for, among other things, the insane heat that Ali and Joe Frazier III had to endure during their fight in Manila. Riffing on that, she decides to bring some of that insane heat in her dish.
Sara starts cool, though, with her kick-off to the gala dinner. Her Fight at Freedom Hall dish has king salmon and her take on “thunder and lightning,” which is a dish featuring a quick pickle of tomatoes and cucumbers—the vegetables most likely to be blown off of their vines during a thunder-and-lightning storm. The dish is great—Tom loves the vinegar-forward flavor and Padma notes how well it showcases the fact that a chef doesn’t need to use heavy ingredients to build flavor.
Justin is next with his Liston II dish, which features a saffron and seafood soup with scallops, clams, and mussels. The diners find it luscious and light, but, as Tom notes, even though Liston II took place in Maine, it was nowhere near the ocean. Thus, the whole impetus of the dish (Liston II ? seafood) is superficial and incorrect.
Eddie has his Fight of the Century dish next, which lacks duck but has a brown butter-roasted chicken with a collard green puree, red wine jus, and toasted hazelnuts. The chicken is perfectly cooked, the vegetables are great, the puree is fine . . . but the dish just lacks excitement for whatever reason. It’s the culinary equivalent of Maroon 5.
Eric is really excited to present his Rumble in the Jungle dish of fufu (a traditional African dumpling) made of plantains and cassava atop a Congolese red sauce. It’s a refined version of a dish his mom would make at home, and as is often the case when chefs draw on flavors near and dear to their hearts, it’s a homerun. It’s a humble dish, elevated to great heights.
Adrienne follows with her Thrilla in Manila dish of braised short rib and a mango/herb salad. The dish is much better than Tom and Nilou were expecting, but some question Adrienne’s use of bottle hot sauce (maybe she should have asked Eddie for some of the sauce he made for the prior morning’s Quickfire, which was excellent).
Lastly, Kelsey has a “unanimous” bread pudding with corn three ways to honor the Battle of New Orleans, in which Ali was the unanimous winner and gave him his third title. It also happens to be one of Ali’s favorite desserts. Like the preceding five dishes, this one is very well received, though Nilou finds fault with Kelsey’s incorporation of caramel corn, which is too hard.
At Judges’ Table, Tom congratulates the chefs for cooking the way they should be cooking with only six chefs remaining—namely, putting out their best food. All of them did tonight, which means that someone will be going home for cooking a good dish.
But it won’t be Sara or Eric. Sara took a simple dish with a straightforward accompaniment like Thunder and Lightning, and made the perfect thing to start the six-course progressive meal. It was a knockout. Eric did the same with a humble Congolese dish of fufu—something that not even Tom was familiar with beforehand—and made it soulful, lusty, and dimensional. For those reasons, Eric takes home his third win of the season. He’s immediately overwhelmed by emotion and gratitude for how these amazing chefs and culinary experts are so willing to try and celebrate the food traditions of his heritage.
As for the remaining four chefs, Padma warns them darkly: She’s said before that the judges have had to nitpick for purposes of elimination, but she really means it this time. The judges are going to be extremely scrutinizing because all of the dishes were really good.
Adrienne gets nitpicked first, with the judges noting that even though her meat was cooked really well, the sauce came on strong immediately and then faded faster than she might have liked. Her flavors, in short, lacked a long finish. Justin’s soup was light and refreshing, but the use of seafood was simplistic thematically and the soup itself was a bit lukewarm. Each component on Eddie’s plate was very well done, but it lacked pizzazz in a challenge celebrating a dynamo like Muhammad Ali. As for Kelsey, her bread pudding was really good, but just a bit one note. She could have maybe added one more secondary flavor to provide a little more dimension to the dessert.
In the end, it comes down to Justin and Eddie, with the chefs forced to choose between a seafood dish that was only superficially anchored to the Liston II bout, or a poultry dish that was executed almost perfectly but lacked a “wow” factor. The judges find the latter more lacking and it’s Eddie who’s sent home. As Tom shakes his hand and brings up the topic of Last Chance Kitchen, he provides a few words of advice: “Just dig deeper.”
As he packs his knives, Eddie notes that he came on Top Chef to gain confidence and get out of his own shell. He believes that he’s a better person and stronger chef for the experience. We’ll see if he can dig deeper to stick around longer.